The Great Ice Storm

I met Julia Munroe Martin online (it always feels sort of dirty saying that). She is an author and essayist who often appears on Writer Unboxed. Born in Déols, France, she now lives with her husband on the southern coast of Maine. She was kind enough, this January, to write about her first winter in Maine, just for us at True STORIES:

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We had moved to Maine a few months earlier, and we really hadn’t made any friends yet. My husband was commuting to Boston, and I was staying home with our two kids. It would be our first winter in Maine.

Christmas vacation was heavenly, the four of us comfortably cozy in our tiny house on an island connected by bridge to the mainland. Light snow fell in the woods, and we took walks on the icy beach. We’d moved to Maine from Colorado to be near the ocean, and we were used to the snow and cold, so we spent a lot of time outside enjoying the great outdoors.

A day after the kids went back to school, I heard there was an ice storm coming. I shrugged. Ice? How bad could that be? My husband trundled down to Massachusetts, and I took the kids to school, same as always. How could I know that “The Great Ice Storm of ’98”—to become one of the worst in Northeast and Canadian history —was bearing down on us?

I got my first taste of what we were in for when I left to pick up the kids from school. My husband had just called from Boston to let me know he was coming home early (little did he know he’d spend a grueling eight hours on a trip that usually took two). I shrugged again, this time with a little less certainty. I also put the dog in the car—our eight-year old Golden Retriever—reasoning that Bo would be help in the event I was…stranded? My reasoning was faulty at best.

The trip to pick up my children was one of the most terrifying of my driving life. The car simply could not stay on the road. I was in a cold sweat by the time I got to the school—and then I had to drive home. Five miles never sounded so long. Like all moms do, I put on a brave face and told the kids we were in for an adventure. Even they could see through my façade when we hit the first hill and slid down sideways. The roads were coated in a thin sheet of icerink-quality ice. I swallowed my panic and gripped the steering wheel. There were still at least half the miles to go.

securedownloadThings were okay until I turned off to go to the island. A long line of cars behind me—everyone used to the conditions, no doubt—carried people angry at me for holding them up (or so my new-to-town mind feared). I pulled over, thinking I’d let them all pass, but as I did, I recognized the error of my ways. The car pitched sideways again, sliding dangerously close to a ditch as it came to a stop. I glanced in the rearview mirror to see the frightened faces of my children, but I was too near tears to open my mouth to reassure them.

Car after car streamed by, no one even looking my way, until one, just one, pulled over behind me. I watched in the mirror as a man got out, and I rolled down the window as he came over. I realized when I did that it was Gary, the father of one of my son’s new friends. “Are you stuck?” Gary asked, smiling. I was never so glad to see anyone in my entire life. Gary pushed the car back on the road as I steered—ignoring the line of cars. Then he followed me home (even though it was a mile beyond his own turn off) to make sure we got there safely. I still tell his wife—who is now one of my best friends—that Gary was my savior that day.

The ice storm would continue for several days. We lost power shortly after we got home from the school run, shortly after even Bo couldn’t pull me up our sloped walkway to the house, and—to be honest—I’m not sure how the kids, the dog, and I made it the last few feet to our door. Yes, it was that treacherous.

After my husband finally got home—well after dark—we hunkered down. All around us we could hear the sound of crackling as the branches were coated with thicker and thicker ice. As the ice got even heavier we heard the sound of branches—of trees—snapping. We got out the candles. We lit a fire in our fireplace (thank goodness it had an insert so it could easily heat our entire small home), and we cooked on our camp stove. In fact we ate well that night: everything in the refrigerator and freezer added up to one of the best one-pot-stews I’ve ever tasted.

Around about the time when the stew was ready, we got a knock on the door. It was one of our neighbors we didn’t know very well (we didn’t know many people very well), asking if we had heat. They didn’t even have a fireplace. We welcomed them in for stew and to spend the night. That’s how we got to know Karen and Jean and their two kids, too.

All-in-all, our power was off for nearly a week (I would later find out that almost three-quarters of households in Maine were without power). The kids were off school, my husband stayed home from work, and we (okay, I) pretended we were pioneers. We were lucky—we stayed warm, dry, and safe. We had water, unlike many whose water was electrically pumped from wells. We helped neighbors move and cut up fallen trees, blocking roads and driveways, and we cheered and served cookies to Central Maine Power workers as they worked round the clock to restore power. And we relied on others. Our son had a basketball free-throw competition to get to—and a downed power line prevented us from getting off our street; another new friend picked us up at the end of the road. (It was well worth the trip, by the way–he won!)

I’m not going to pretend it was all sunshine and roses—these things never are. Tempers thinned, provisions got low, batteries ran out. But it was an adventure (I was right about that), and it was a bonding experience, too. “We survived the Great Ice Storm of 1998,” we moms would all say, laughingly, as we met up with each other at school in the next few weeks. We had stories to tell and a new appreciation for the power of ice.

But for me, it was more—a defining moment. We had just moved to Maine and we hadn’t made any friends, but as the ice melted and the weather improved, we found ourselves encased in a whole new community.

Julia Munroe Martin is the author behind the Empty Nest series and the mystery, Desired to Death. Find her online at  www.juliamunroemartin.com.